Today is my nephew Damien Smrt’s 6th wedding anniversary. About two months before the wedding my relationship with my only sibling Terry Lee tottered on the edge of an abyss, and it had to with the fact that my son Russ and his wife were not on the guest list. I was told it was a matter of economics, but instead of saying something hateful, I bit my tongue and ask how much two more guests would cost. To this day I do not know if Damien and Valerie knew why they received a check for $150.00 along with their wedding gift. There were good reasons why Russ was not on the list. He and his wife are very much a twosome even now and while they often intend to arrive at family functions, I’d never ante on it. I could hardly blame Damien and Valerie for making the same judgment call. But Russ and Damien were both the same age and when they were little, they had the same yellow Dick Tracy costumes, they watched the same videos, and they were as close as cousins living one hundred eight miles apart can be. So I bought him back in.
The bottom line is that Terry accepted the check and thought that all was right in Bedlam. But I was still stewing. And if Russ and Cio had no been so happy about getting an invitation, Chris and I may not have gone. Our absence would have been justified because Chris is not well. At any rate, the four of us headed for a favorite Harbor Island hotel, and had a great time falling in love again with San Diego where I lived for thirty years, and on Saturday we went to what was a lovely wedding. My sister was so happy to see that all four of us actually showed that I caught a tear in the corner of her smiling eyes.
She was beautiful. Her hair was a wonderful honey blonde that matched her dress. Everything about her was perfect. She was radiant. This was the last of her kids to get married, the one who had dragged her half way around the world with his ice hockey team. Many of the guests were Damien’s friends she’d chaperoned in Copenhagen on two different Scandanavian sports tours. When I watched her, I was so damned glad I had gotten over my overdose of righteous indignation and kept my mouth shut.
Sixth months later, she was dead.
What went on between during that sixth months was almost mystical. We began emailing one another after our spouses had gone to bed. She had just retired from a job she had hated after working for nearly thirty years at a job she loved. We talked about that on the telephone, in spite of the fact that my hearing is all but shot. She was hoping to get some relief from her carpal-tunnel syndrome that was affecting the use of her hands. Except it wasn’t carpal tunnel. It was an inoperable glioblastoma.
She was at her daughter Darcy’s house when she lost control of the hand that was holding a wine glass. Within days, the diagnosis was pronounced. My husband and I were furious when her doctors told her she might live five years. My husband is a researcher and he also is stage four survivor of basal tongue cancer, and nothing we read about her cancer was encouaging.
But bless her, at least for a while she proved us wrong, and again, I am thankful that I kept my mouth shut. Even when her emails required a special program that let her keyboard repond to her voice, even when her voice began to fail, we strugged through it. We sometimes talked on the telephone in the middle of the night, Terry with her slurred speech and me with my ruined ears. My last late night call from her was an inquiry—she wanted to know if my son Russ’s puppy Frank made the air flight from Michigan. When I told her we were getting a puppy, too, she wanted to know what we would name him. Names were always a big issue between us. I was the one who named her Terry Lee, after the comic strip hero of the 1940’s.
The last time I was with my sister was two days before she died. She was in and out of consciousness and the family had assembled with the hospice people. I had asked to be summoned from the meeting if she awakened, and her son in law Mark came to tell me she was asking for me. He stayed with us during the visit because of my hearing problems.
Our last conversation consisted of a phrase she repeated over and over until Mark and I calmed her.
“Linda, you’re my big sister and you have to take me home,” she said in the manner of a petulant child. When she was four and I was eleven, I was the one who walked her to and from school. In Cleveland in the forties there were no buses. Sometimes when the snow had drifted on the south side of Euclid Avenue, I carried her. During one of her hospital stays in ICU early in November, she had a friend of hers call me with the same request. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, Linda, but she wants you to get in your car right now and come down here to take her home.” Terry’s friend, another Linda, apologized profusely and assured me it was the drugs talking, but I knew what she meant. When she was a little girl she thought I could do just about anything.
In our last visit, I told her it was too early to go home just yet, but I would try to help her get there when it was time. Then I told her that I loved her. She made a funny grimace, and she was five years old again.
“I already knew that, ” she scolded.
Then she said, “You have to go home now and fix dinner for Chris. I have to wait for Damien to come.”
Mark told her it was all right for her to go back to sleep and he kissed her forehead.
After we left with plans to return on Sunday, Damien arrived. She shooed everyone else away. He shared what happened with my daughter later.
“Damien, am I dying?”
“Yes, Mom, you are,” he said.
Then she slipped quietly into a coma.
Our mother was a difficult person who often drove wedges between Terry Lee and me. That was another thing we talked about during that last six months. I had no idea that our mother was using the same tactic with Terry that she used on me. We should have had those conversations years before, when our children were growing up. But I was busy in the courtroom slaying dragons and Terry was being the international ice hockey Mom and a constant cheerleader for her lovely daughters. Bittersweet though it may be, at last we had that last six months, a treasure I may never have uncovered if I’d let my temper flare the previous spring. And as I look back to Damien’s wedding, it is the one wedding other than mine to Chris that I could not have afforded to miss.
Happy anniversary, Damien Smrt and Valerie Finik Smrt.